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June 9, 2005



The Wobblies are coming

"THE IWW IS COMING! WE'RE GONNA organize a branch here," writes "Anarchist Andrew" in an invitation posted on the Redwood Peace and Justice Center list-serve.

Those who "want to join the one big union and improve the conditions in the workplace and our community" are urged to attend an informal gathering at the RPJC Thursday, June 9, to celebrate the organization's 100th birthday, eat free pizza and learn about the IWW's past, present and future.

It's likely if you're familiar with the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the IWW or the Wobblies, it's because of their illustrious past. Founded in Chicago 100 years ago this month, the "one big union" brought together radical trade unionists with socialists and anarchists from across the United States.

Some look back with an odd sense of nostalgia at strikes put down by Pinkerton violence and murdered union leaders like Joe Hill. Among the union's early leaders were Eugene Debs, who ran for president of the United States under the Socialist Party banner, Big Bill Haywood from the United Federation of Mine Workers and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones.

Bruce Valde, an IWW organizer from the Bay Area, is in town to speak to people interested in forming a branch of the Wobblies here in Humboldt County. He realizes that people have a romantic notion of his union.

"And right well they should," he said. "Certainly the history of the IWW is filled with some of the more interesting episodes and characters in the history of the labor movement in this country, even worldwide. One of the things we find is that those who might be sympathetic to our ideals will approach us saying, `Oh, my goodness, you're still around. I'm amazed.' Then there are those who really love us -- because we are dead. That's their opinion; we are dead and therefore lovable."

Is the IWW still alive and relevant in this day and age? If so, how?

"First and foremost, the IWW is a labor union," said Valde. "In significant ways we're no different from any other labor union. We are interested in bringing some kind of economic and social justice to workers on the job whether they be young, old, women, men.

"We're a small union and comparisons with gargantuan unions are fruitless," he continued. "Do we represent workers in specific industries? We in fact have signed contracts with workers in recycling, in retail, in social services and other small industries, but all on a very small scale. It has to be emphasized that the IWW has never gone away, but it nearly has."

"Survival is not the most interesting element about the IWW's hundred years," says Alexis Buss, who serves as general secretary treasurer of the international working out of the IWW's main headquarters in Philadelphia. "It's kind of boring to say `Isn't this cute: the IWW is still around.'

"The thing that keeps me involved with the union is that the work the organization is doing is very much relevant to the condition of the labor movement today. In many depressing ways that condition is not dissimilar to where it was 100 years ago. While we have made a lot of bread and butter gains, we've lost a lot of ground too. While our bosses have globalized their efforts, right now there is no movement for international solidarity sufficient to address the problems created by globalized capitalism."

Valde suggests that the IWW can offer workers something different. "Today we're a small union but we're growing. Why have we gained validity? Why are we an option for the working class? To answer that you might look to the business unions and see where they have failed. They don't offer the worker a lot today because they're on the run. They are consolidating, trying to keep up with the changing reality of the world economy and keep what they've got," in face of a union busting government and union jobs that have moved overseas.

His plan for the IWW meeting in Arcata is to paint a picture of the organization in broad strokes, then let those who are interested decide what they want to do locally.

In addition to Valde's presentation, Erik Rez and Star Pahl of the local Earth Rhythms Performance Co. plan on performing a portion of their latest piece, Songs of Labor and Love, at the Wobbly gathering.

Rez explained that the music/theater troupe originally put the show together for the worker's holiday May Day. "We chose to go back 100 years and pull out some of the songs from around the time May Day was first celebrated. The IWW was one of the key groups that came along at that time.

"Our company tries to create unique pieces telling history outside of the mainstream, history that's often forgotten or not told. Music is part of that, and the beat and the rhythm. The rhythm of history repeats and recycles just as the songs go on. We also use text, clip bits from old newspapers and books, writings and speeches, using them in between the songs."

The labor show includes songs like "Solidarity," a few tunes written by Joe Hill and others collected by Pete Seeger in his songbook, Carry It On. "We wanted to get back to a time when working values were discussed and fought for. That seemed to be the turbulent times at the turn of the 20th century.

"It's relevant now to help Americans relate to struggles going on around the world right now. All the problems we touch on -- troubles in the sweat shops, mills and factories -- have been exported to Third World countries where they're going though the same sort struggles to get the rights they deserve to have a decent standard of living. That's why we're talking about these things again."

The IWW 100th Anniversary Celebration takes place on Thursday, June 9, from 4 until 9 p.m. at the Redwood Peace and Justice Center 1040 H St., Arcata. The IWW will provide snacks and pizza. For more information about the new local IWW branch, call 616-4700.

Bob Doran


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